Director: John Ford
By Roderick Heath
This post is part of The John Ford Blogathon hosted by Krell Laboratories.
By the 1960s, John Ford might have expected and deserved a time of general acclaim as an elder statesman and artistic-industrial titan in Hollywood. The most Oscar-laden director in the medium’s history, with nearly 50 years’ worth of popular hits behind him and a legacy that for many defined the very essence of an American director as well as a whole genre, the western, Ford should have been hailed as an old master and given carte blanche to indulge his autumnal vision. He was indeed on the cusp of gaining a new kind of acclaim, one he scarcely knew how to process or relate to, as a singular hero of the auterist critical school. Unfortunately, even Ford faced the fate of too many filmmakers working in a business with little memory, only ledgers—a career that ended not in the grandiosity of a rapturously received ninth symphony or rose-piled farewell performance, but with films of decreasing budget, patronised and dismissed by studios he helped build, as an industry in a swift decline engaged in desperate reorganisation.
Still, Ford was able to make his kind of film right up until the end—or at least he made damn sure by the time they were done they were his kind of film. If he had died after making the knockabout comedy Donovan’s Reef (1963), he would have stowed away his oeuvre with a gently rambunctious, humane fantasia about the joys of friendly fist fights and light premarital S&M, with a spirit of wryness and conciliation sneakily close to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” But his swan song was destined to be 7 Women, which saw release on the lower half of a double bill. Thus, he ended his career not with a crinkly wink, but a gob of tobacco-stained spit right in his audience’s eye.
When directors’ days shorten, their films tend to get longer. But Ford’s final feature film clocked in at barely 85 minutes, displaying signs of harsh editing and resembling the rudely functional completeness of a piece of Brutalist architecture. Despite its length, more dramatic tensions bubble under the surface of 7 Women than many much longer films begin to approach. Ford, a director who had always played the imperious tough guy in Hollywood, keeping his sensitive, well-read streak tucked away like an embarrassing birthmark, had long been fascinated with not merely the mythos of the frontier, be it geographical or psychological, but its sociological meaning, which, for better or worse, entailed the arrival of civilisation and stability in unruly and protean places. The act of faith in all of his mature films, even the most conscientiously dogged and questioning, like The Grapes of Wrath (1940) or Cheyenne Autumn (1962), assert that the better angels of human nature could win out over brute sectarianism and social prejudice eventually and find communal unity. In his more challenging works, particularly his last decade’s output, that unity might only be found on the level of individuals, as in The Searchers (1956), Sergeant Rutledge (1960), and Two Rode Together (1961). 7 Women offers no such clear hope. It’s closer in spirit to Samuel Beckett than Samuel Clemens,and contemplates the edge of a wilderness that cannot be tamed any further, tossing up barbarians and fanatics who destroy the sane between them.
The most obvious break with the rest of Ford’s oeuvre is that 7 Women is about women. Female characters were rarely focal points of Ford’s narratives, though his films were littered with strong and varied ones, sometimes taunting the males with independence, but more often representing the essence of civilisation overcoming their men as both overcame the landscape. 7 Women offers an almost entirely female cast left in the kind of frontier outpost where John Wayne, Henry Fonda. or Woody Strode would have stood in their defence. This outpost is a mission school and clinic situated somewhere in the wilds of northwestern China in the mid 1930s. The mission chief is Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton), the unquestioned authority, both material and moral, over a small coterie of aides far out of their psychic safety zones. Andrews’ aide is the sparrowlike Miss Argent (Mildred Dunnock), the image of a pinched and tremulously obeisant spinster. Kim (Hans William Lee) is the head of the staff of local men who help keep the mission operating.
Andrews’ two teachers are two relative newcomers, middle-aged Charles Pether (Eddie Albert) and very young Emma Clark (Sue Lyon). Pether has his wife Florrie (Betty Field) with him, and the part at first seem a rather pathetic, misplaced pair: Pether, having harboured a desire to be a preacher, is given to proselytising to his goggle-eyed, bewildered young Chinese pupils when he’s supposed to be teaching them the alphabet. Because Pether could only make enough money for the long-term support of his ailing mother, he’s only just married Florrie, his childhood sweetheart, pregnant though she’s the same age as her husband and perilously close to menopause. The perpetually worried and hair-trigger hysteric Florrie is the mission’s raw nerve and bellwether, listening for news of dread import, with the Mongolian warlord Tunga Khan known to be ravaging the frontier and rumoured to be committing atrocities. Andrews assures her charges that the mission isn’t in danger because she believes Tunga will not attack an American station.
The basis for 7 Women, interestingly, was the story “Chinese Finale” by Norah Lofts, who also provided the basis for the thematically very similar Hammer horror film The Witches, released the same year. Lofts’ fascination with independent women battling hostile forces, both internal and external, often encompassing the collapsing fringes of the declining colonial era, crossbreeds surprising neatly with Ford’s sensibility. A schism that commonly arises in Ford’s films between the genuinely committed and the destructively pompous is here given new context and taken to an extreme, as Andrews is quickly faced with as complete an opposite as she could expect. The mission has been without a doctor for some time, with the last two having pulled out at the last minute and Florrie increasingly worried about facing giving birth without medical care. Charles is sent to fetch the new arrival, but returns confusedly without anyone. Days later, the doctor arrives: Dr. D. R. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft) turns to the camera with a sleight of Ford’s hand that calls back to the similarly great introduction of the silhouetted Ringo Kid (John Wayne) in Stagecoach (1939). Similarly, just as Woody Strode’s Sergeant Rutledge was the new type of indomitable American hero, Cartwright is Ford’s type of woman, defined as creature of imperious action and touching the outer edges of androgyny with short curly hair, leather jacket, and boots.
Cartwright soon reveals herself more than ready, whether she means to or not, to shake up the mission. A drinker, smoker, hard-bitten professional, and probable atheist, she quickly upsets the niceties of the mission’s social life, arriving at the dinner table with a smoke in hand and making her unfamiliarity with saying grace readily known. Real conflict between Cartwright and Andrews combusts when Cartwright, after inspecting Florrie, tells both Pether and Andrews that she would be better off in a proper hospital rather than risking birth in the mission. Andrews explains to Cartwright that each of the mission workers is “a soldier” and that Florrie will have to take her chances. Cartwright explodes at this, accusing Andrews of punishing Florrie for the obvious fact that she and her husband had sex in the mission and calling Andrews a small-time dictator. Argent tries to mollify and chastise Cartwright for disturbing the peace. Soon, Cartwright is pitched into an unquestioned, if temporary, authority when she detects signs of typhoid in refugees streaming through the mission gates, and institutes a quarantine.
Just before Cartwright recognises the disease’s presence, the mission welcomed a group of refugees, including Miss Binns (Flora Robson), Mrs. Russell (Anna Lee), and Miss Ling (Jane Chang), three workers from a British-run mission that’s already been raided by Tunga Khan. Andrews quietly rejects their offers to lend a hand because they’re a different denomination and might further upset her little empire, but Binns has sufficient experience in nursing to aid and relieve Cartwright. The labour of dealing with the epidemic still falls most heavily on the doctor’s shoulders, whilst Pether works to exhaustion with the mission’s local workmen to burn infected clothing and bury the dead.
Although Ford certainly didn’t mean for 7 Women to be his last movie, its motifs connect to a vast swathe of his films with a summative work’s clarity and concision, but not in a manner that suggests any kind of peace being made. The isolated setting and the drama’s compressed, playlike structure analysing a gallery of besieged characters, inevitably recalls not just Ford’s westerns, but also The Lost Patrol (1934). As with that early adventure film, a less familiar setting allows Ford to reduce the enemy “other” to something close to abstract symbol, as opposed to his increasingly fraught and empathetic depiction of Native Americans. Ford’s famously strong patriotism, religious conviction, and interest in social niceties and hierarchies were often counterbalanced by a contemptuous attitude to false versions of those faiths—prissy, empty piety was usually portrayed as a potent, but individual ill in Ford’s earlier works like Stagecoach, like the embezzling bank manager declares “What’s good for the banks is good for the country” and the women who chase Claire Trevor out of town, or How Green Was My Valley (1941), where the good minister is tormented by self-righteous parishioners. Perhaps the Ford work 7 Women feels in most immediate dialogue with is Fort Apache (1948), concentrating on an isolated locale where the little rituals that hold the civil balance are threatened by the arrival of a new figure of power, and the nature of such power is analysed in successive postures, as an increasingly irrational commander is revealed as a straw dummy whilst a cooler subordinate’s moral pragmatism can’t save the day. The dialectic of the two character types helps interrogate the difference between authoritarianism and leadership, and on a deeper level, between existential reaction to changing circumstance and adherence to unyielding codes of humanism and fanaticism. Leighton and Bancroft are cast in the Henry Fonda and John Wayne roles, respectively, with the newcomer as the voice of reason rather than that of vainglory, who exposes the whole project as a kind of sham, if perhaps a necessary sham.
The underlying drama is given a peculiar, deeper piquancy by the half-stated competition between Cartwright and Andrews for influence over Emma. The competition and its stakes are radically different for each woman, however. Cartwright recognises Emma as a young, fresh personality who she thinks should get out of the mission life before it sucks her dry. Andrews is powerfully in love with her pretty blonde charge, an attraction made painfully clear in an early scene when she catches sight of Emma partly undressed and her face contorts with bottomless pain and longing. During the quarantine, Cartwright is awakened from a few snatched hours of sleep to treat Emma, who has fallen to the disease. A moment of exhausted communion between Cartwright and Andrews comes when both sit at the tree at the centre of the mission compound—literal and spiritual axis of the mission—where earlier Andrews had been able to briefly take hold of Emma’s hand. Andrews, in her daze and grief, speaks of burying her emotions in her work. But that’s not working anymore. The seven women of the title do not include Cartwright, but rather the missionary ladies from whom she stands apart. Yet, Cartwright is certainly the hero of the film, a distinction that is quite deliberate. Her affectations rupture every presumption about womanhood seemingly upheld by the missionaries, but more than that, a carefully laid system of assumptions about what constitutes cohesive social values and duty of care. When she gets drunk after her tending to the sick, she incurs icy recriminations around the teetotallers’ table, and alludes to the lousy career choices she faced as a doctor in the U.S. where she worked in poor urban hospitals and finally fled after a love affair with “the wrong guy.”
Ford’s gift for realising character types with Dickensian vividness in the briefest of cinematic shorthand is apparent through 7 Women, occasionally touching the edges of camp caricature, as with Florrie’s early, quick leaps to florid worry and Mrs. Russell’s vehement reaction to Cartwright’s bottle of whisky. The casting certainly makes use of the actors’ screen personas from prior roles: Lyons, who had found brief fame acting in Lolita (1962) and then appeared in Night of the Iguana (1964), might well have been justifiably tired of playing objects of obsession for middle-aged pervs, whilst Leighton specialised in playing unstable, repressed figures, and Albert replays aspects of his role in Robert Aldrich’s Attack! (1956). But Ford and his screenwriters Janet Green and John McCormick complicate the schema with a vividness that is just as swift and precise. Ford’s visual language is deftly functional, yet always telling, usually perceiving this motley collective in group shots that survey them in a manner reminiscent of classic Dutch art’s group portraits and social studies, luminous faces amidst dark surrounds rendered by cinematographer Joseph LaShelle’s muted palettes dominated by shades of brown and grey.
Close-ups are privileges and dominance of the frame in contention: Andrews, at first unquestionably at the forefront of the visuals, is forced to contend with Cartwright in squared-off, geometrically balanced shots that see the two women holding each side of repeated shots. Andrews is pushed into the background and then generally cleaved from the group as she retreats into herself. The expansiveness of Ford’s cinema at its height is nowhere to be found here. Gone are the wide-open landscapes and languorous, enfolding studies in binding social ritual, and even the comic relief of boisterous brawling for blowing off steam (a welcome excision perhaps), something that the mission’s inhabitants have, quite literally, forbidden themselves.
The world beyond the mission walls becomes not free space, but oppressive zone of nullity, whilst its interior is dominated by narrow rectilinear shots in the shadowy hallway and dining room, cramming in upon the characters, a moral and psychological pressure cooker that quickly begins to work. Much like with Fritz Lang’s later Hollywood films, a pinched budget and lower expectation steered Ford back to a minimalist, interiorised, semi-expressionistic quality like a reflexive return to the art of the early cinema both men understood well. A nightmarish quality does permeate many moments of 7 Women, often evoked in shots staring down the oppressive length of the mission’s central corridor, where Pether retreats in agony as Florrie, locked away from the rest of the mission to keep her and her child safe from disease, shouts out to him with shrill, peevish demands; you can almost feel the mutual sense of long-cheated love turned into grinding misery. Much later, Cartwright, draped in exotic finery that entails submission to an alien, personality-erasing force that turns her into a ghost of other ages, stalks the same space with a lantern, planning death and deliverance. The social structure of the mission survives the crisis of the epidemic but cannot withstand the portents of Tunga Khan’s coming, first ominously suggested by a distant infernal glow on the horizon as a town burns. Ignoring Andrews’ angry cries, government troops flee the area, stripping the mission of protection both actual and psychological.
Following his back-breaking and depleting service during the epidemic, the imminence of a new danger finally shocks Pether out of his nervous timidity as he decries his vain actions in dragging his wife with him to this place, and vaults him into a newfound zone of confident command. Realising the exposed position of the mission once the soldiers leave, Pether assumes a take-charge attitude, telling everyone to get ready to leave, and sets out with Kim in the mission’s single, old jalopy to find out what’s going on. Later, the sound of the car’s horn calls a watchman to open the mission gate, only to allow a band of horsemen to charge in and conquer the outpost, the horn now a detached relic of conquest.
Kim, brought back to the mission as a captive, recounts Pether’s heroic but tragically absurd death in his first act of selfless valor—trying to intervene in a rape. Tunga Khan’s men then kill Kim at Andrews’ feet, sparking her to erupt in rage and sorrow. Tunga Khan (Mike Mazurski) has the women locked up in a supply shed, intending to hold them for ransom. Miss Ling, an aristocratic Chinese woman, is singled out for humiliation and abuse. Of course, Florrie goes into labour in the shed, still beggared by her husband’s sudden, fatal display of bravery. The reduction of space to the airless and comfortless shed precipitates Andrews’ total collapse in desperate detachment even as the others work to help Florrie give birth. Mother and baby survive the ordeal, and even Tunga Khan and his men are delighted by the arrival.
The beauty of 7 Women lies largely in a contemplation of its characters as beings in flux, fitting a film that seems to be resituating Ford’s eternal frontier as a place of the psyche where new worlds are at stake. Ford allows each character a theatrical moment that reveals something crucial about them, but then watches as each displays different facets under intense pressure: Pether’s transformation and Andrews’ slow crack-up are the two most overt, but by film’s end, most of the characters are revealed as, or pushed to become, the opposites of what they seem at the outset. Even the pathetic and annoying Florrie gains a peculiar dignity in hard-won perspective and the calm that comes from contemplating truly difficult circumstances. Indeed, dignity is a true currency in 7 Women, valuable to those who have it, those who want it, and those who want to take it away from others. Early in the film Andrews tries to assert her influence over Emma by describing Cartwright as superficially exciting but spiritually “dead,” a proposition Emma instinctively rejects. Indeed, as the film continues, one watches the painful death of Andrews as a personality as she’s consumed by repression and loses all dignity in the name of retaining it. Tunga Khan’s main pleasure is to subjugate personalities with pride, first with Miss Ling, who is raped off-screen and glimpsed being forced to tend to Tunga Khan’s concubine (Irene Tsu) as a serving maid. Yet, when Cartwright asks her how she is, Ling replies with cool fortitude, “I’m alive.”
By the film’s standard, Ling is the first to win the ultimate victory of retaining her sense of self in the face of trial. Cartwright herself becomes the next object of Tunga Khan’s predatory interest as her displays of fierce will and powerful personality intrigue him more than the other women, even the pretty but colourless Emma: only Cartwright, who, in her fearsome independence seems both an emissary from a feminist future but also a more ancient, uncurbed personality, an Empress hiding in riding jodhpurs, can offer Tunga Khan the unique pleasure of both robust erotic excitement and the pleasure of its submission. This desire becomes a weapon Cartwright seizes even at the cost of momentary degradation, as she makes a deal with Tunga Khan to have sex with him in exchange for better treatment of the prisoners and provisions for the baby. It’s strangely appropriate that Ford’s long career of portraying hard-drinking, asocial, highly talented professionals is crystallised in a female figure who belittles even Howard Hawks’ tough women whilst strongly resembling them, because unlike them, Cartwright isn’t just functional in a masculine world, she is, as she says herself, “better!” She meets her sleazy captor before fucking him with a cool-eyed, smoke-spouting smile that levels mountains. There’s a definite, deliberate note of black humour in the way Ford portrays the Mongol brutes, signalled first by having the gall to cast Mazurski and Woody Strode (as Tunga Khan’s “lean” lieutenant) with a straight face as their leaders, and confirmed in humorous asides until a climactic moment of death when one drops dead with the suddenness of a Loony Tunes character after ingesting poison.
Like Lee Marvin’s eponymous thug in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Tunga Khan and his men are on hand to embody primal masculinity as wild and juvenile proto-punks who delight in assaults on the trappings of civilisation, loping not out of the real steppes but from the recesses of modernity’s nightmares. There’s also a similarity to the kinds of crude, but gentle-souled giants Wallace Beery and Victor McLaglen played for Ford, stripped of their virtuous simplicity and reduced to beasts with appetites. They rant, smash, tear, rape, pillage, murder, and give boisterous stage laughs. Tunga Khan and his lieutenant are in the midst of a silent power struggle, a struggle that mirrors the one between the women but is played out in different fashion, signalled in a series of silent postures, as the lieutenant makes a play to impress Cartwright before Tunga Khan by engaging in a wrestling match. Tunga Khan immediately recognises the unspoken challenge and strips down to fight his aide himself, quickly and brutally cracking the man’s neck in combat, whilst Cartwright watches, smoking a cigarette with sardonic fascination. Rank prostitution for a good cause scarcely bothers Cartwright, who’s probably had one-night stands in Chicago as fetid and clumsy as Tunga Khan probably is, but Andrews, when she learns what’s happened, works herself up into a glaze-eyed tantrum, calling Cartwright the Whore of Babylon and other cute biblical phrases. Soon, Andrews has lost what little respect and patience the other women could show her: by the very end even Miss Argent snaps with livid anger, “I never want to hear another word from you as long as I live!”
7 Women stands up with a crucially similar film released the same year, Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles, as the first work put out by Hollywood that feels assuredly like a metaphor for America’s deepening involvement in Vietnam. It certainly comprehends with surprising self-criticality and grimness the potential problems of an age of global reach where do-gooding blends problematically with cultural colonisation, filtered through the (then) not-so-distant past: Ford, who felt compelled to defend the war later, seems to have offloaded all of his psychic discontent here. The feeling that something is about to crack up nastily haunts 7 Women, geopolitics and sexual politics and even individual identity itself entering a no-man’s-land where all will be forcibly redefined, as if modernity is a bellows stoking every precept to white hot. The finale vibrates with anxiety and darkness as Cartwright, at Emma’s prompting and faced with the probably death of Florrie’s baby if not freed immediately, agrees to sell herself to Tunga Khan as permanent chattel to secure the release of the other women. This works, and Cartwright appears to the other prisoners now wrapped in the clothes of Tunga Khan’s concubine in a bleak gag that finally sees Cartwright forced into the part of traditional, doll-like female, and the seven women are carted away from the mission, The broken Andrews remains, awed by the spectacle of sacrifice required and given, echoing the similar self-sacrifice that defines The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
The missionaries’ last sight of Cartwright is beautiful and chilling to equal degree, the doctor standing in her Chinese garb holding a lantern, aglow in near-darkness. Ford saves his greatest touch for a finale as memorable in its way as that of The Searchers, as Cartwright stalks the empty halls of the mission, the audience already forewarned she’s going to try something deadly and forced to watch it play out. Mutually assured destruction is the nihilistic metaphor at the heart of Ford’s swan song. Cartwright gets one of the most blackly amusing and stirring kiss-off lines in film history as she cracks her cup against the Khan’s and toasts, “Here’s to ya, you bastard!” She waits until the Khan drops dead from his poisoned drink before swallowing her own. Ford fades to black as she leans back to be embraced by the dark.